Chapter 46

No one comes to stop me, so I put the raft in the ocean and push knee deep into the water, and jump inside. Fumbling around for the paddle underneath takes some coordination and balance. Finally I’m ready to . . . uh-oh. There’s a big white foamy avalanche of what’s left of a wave barreling down on me.  The all too familiar fear of imminent failure paralyzes me, and I clumsily get situated for paddling.

Just as I get ready to paddle, the wave hits me and I begin moving backwards very quickly. Bubbling white water lifts the front of the raft up . . . lots of sky . . . “Aaaahhhh, shit.”

When I come up for air, I’m kneeling, chest deep in water and completely wet. A quick search for the raft finds it sliding up the beach on what’s left of the wave that flipped me over. Feeling around for my boots is a short job, thankfully, because my second job is to grab the paddle before it floats away.

I walk over to the raft, flip it over, toss the boots and paddle back in again, and look around to see if anybody cares about the raft.

Looking toward the border I see I’m a bit farther south now from where I started, and that reminds me, I’ll be fighting the current when paddling north. I hope I can paddle fast enough to make good progress. I’d hate to paddle out a mile and then when I get back to shore, find myself back in Guadalajara.

The first order of business is to get past these rolling, foaming, border-guards. There are three lines of surf that I’ll have to get past. It looks like there is a minute or so between waves. This really shouldn’t be very hard.

Putting the raft back in the water and walking it out as far into the surf as possible, I jump into the raft as a foamy wave passes me. Getting on my knees without tipping over is not very easy, but I get situated and then begin paddling like crazy. The wave forming ahead of me, and the memory of what just happened, is not very reassuring. I need to get over the top of that wave before it breaks, but having to switch sides after every two or three paddles in order not to paddle in a circle makes progress difficult.

The wave is peaking and I’m almost there. My heart is pounding as I paddle harder, and faster, but I feel myself tilt up, then begin to slide backwards as the wave becomes a wall.

Oh shit.

In a moment of genius that only comes from recently experiencing a similar failure a mere two or three minutes before, I grab the boots with one hand and hang onto the paddle with the other as my little world gets turned upside down again. An idea hits me at about the same time as the sandy bottom does. It’s moments like this that make me feel so incredibly stupid—and brilliant, all at the same time.

I stand up and shake the sand our of my right ear, then walk over to where the raft has now landed, twenty or so yards farther south. Even mother nature seems to make it easier to get into Mexico than get out of it.

Turning the raft over to empty the water, I put the paddle and boots inside and reassess my situation. Glancing up the beach toward the building where I got this raft, I see I haven’t been discovered yet. Come to think of it, as far as I know, this raft floated down on the current from the US. Maybe it’s an American raft . . .

Back to the mission at hand.

I blow some sand out of my nose and feel the gritty coarseness in my shirt, pants, pockets, and my underwear. I notice my white shirt is now almost clear, and I wonder if that means I could get sun burned out here—anyway, what was that idea I had a few minutes ago? Oh, yeah, I’m probably getting swamped because I’m sitting too far back in the raft. I’m easily pushed back down the wave. Surfers pass the first lines of surf all the time by jumping over it and paddling out past it. I’ll just act more like a surfer.

I catch my breath and make sure everything is situated just right, then wait for the right time to charge the surf, jump over the foamy remnants of a wave, and paddle my ass off to get to the next set of breakers.

Seeing my opportunity, I carry my momentum forward and jump onto the raft, positioning myself forward with my chin resting over the front of the raft, and my ankles hanging over the back. Laying on my stomach I paddle like a surfer, not even looking at the wave ahead of me. I know there is one, waiting for me, daring me to come get dunked again, I can feel it. I just don’t want to look at it and get spooked.

As the raft gets pulled up into the next wave, I paddle harder, digging deep into the water with flat bladed hands, and reaching the top of a wave, it begins to curl. A cold rush goes through my body as the fear of getting dunked again becomes a distinct possibility. Leaning as far forward as I can and reaching over the top of the wave I pull downward and climb as hard and fast as I can. In an instant the raft levels off, and the wave breaks beneath me, pulling me backward with it. I paddle harder to break free from the turbulent grip of the foamy white water. Finally, I sense some forward progress again. Man that was scary.

I look up at the next line of surf ahead of me. The muscles in my arms and chest are exhausted. The next wave comes surprisingly soon. Paddling harder and faster, leaning forward like last time, I make it over this wave a little easier, but again there is the backward pulling sensation. My arms begin to feel like rubber, straining to make forward progress. The wave seems alive, like it’s trying to keep me from escaping.

I’m exhausted and out of breath. Just one more row of waves to go, but I’m having trouble getting past this row. The taste of salt water and the smell of plastic remind me of how fun this used to be as a kid. My wobbly arms beg me to stop and take a break.

I look ahead, paddling and assessing my chances. It doesn’t look like I’m going to make this one, but I also don’t think getting pushed backwards to the previous surf line is going to do me any good either. The next wave begins to build.

Paddling seems useless; I can’t seem to get enough air. The wave builds, pushing me higher, racing towards me, as my little yellow raft and I rush to meet it. It is so on, but I’m almost spent. My breathing is deep and raspy like I’ve been running a marathon. I’m in deep water now and swimming isn’t going to work for me. I have to make it, or I’ll drown. The realization that I might die turns my blood cold. I push harder to make the wave before it breaks. I’m lifted up, up, up. The wave begins to crest, and I feel incredibly high in the air right now. Leaning as far forward as possible, inching my chin way out over the front of the raft, paddling and paddling, hoping to get my head above the breaking wave. The wave breaks beneath me and once again I’m being pulled backward, but I keep paddling with spaghetti arms until I’m away from the danger zone, breaking free from the grip of the wave.

I made it! I paddle a bit more to get past the surf line, but ultimately my arms give out.

My victory dance consists of collapsing on the bottom of the raft, taking air in huge gulps, and wanting to take a serious nap. I made it. Yippie.

After recovering a bit, and catching my breath, I feel a swell roll by underneath me. I paddle a few weak strokes to get farther away from the breaking waves. I notice the raft seems less full. When I first got in it, the raft was pretty firm, but now it’s softer, lower in the water than before. It’s probably from all the tumbling I did on it. The loss of air may have even helped get past that last wave, being less buoyant than before. If I’d have thought of this earlier I could have saved a lot of effort. If pain is the feeling of stupidity leaving your body, my arms are telling me I’m a freaking genius.

I find an air nipple underneath my chin, pop it open and begin blowing. Since I’m facing the beach now, it’s becoming apparent I’m drifting southward, and towards the surf again. Maybe I can paddle and blow at the same time. I’ll just take it nice and easy. Turning the raft around and pointing it north, I take long, slow strokes, breathing in through my nose and out into the raft.

After only a few deep breaths, I feel dizzy. I close up the air nipple and focus on paddling. The last thing I want to do is pass out and end back up on the beach again.

I decide to paddle westward to get farther out where there is less risk of being sucked into the surf, or being seen by anyone on the beach. After a few minutes I stop and focus all my attention on filling the raft back up. The smell of plastic, salt and seaweed is strong with my nose buried in the raft. I can almost smell the suntan lotion Mom would put on me to keep me from getting darker. Suntan lotion. I look at my transparent shirt. Damn. I’m going to get sunburned out here.

When the raft feels as firm as when I first got it, I push the nipple back in, carefully position myself in a sitting position, and use the paddle to take me north-west, still trying to get out of sight. As long as I can see land, they can probably see me. This raft being bright yellow is not going to help me sneak past Mr. Quad either. I wonder if there’s a submarine around here, waiting for me to cross the border, where it will pop up and a guy with wire-rimmed sunglasses will stick his head out and tell me to go back to Mexico.

Paddling steadily on the left for three strokes, then on the right for three strokes, I try to get into a rhythm I can maintain for a few hours. I don’t want to tire too quickly. I’ll just go a mile or two up the beach, and then land in front of someone’s house and deliver the raft to them like I’m returning it.

 

After several minutes, I notice the raft is getting soft again. Maybe all this activity has started a leak. I stop paddling and push several deep, slow breaths into the raft. It doesn’t seem to be satisfied, so I repeat until my little yellow friend is firm and happy again.

I can barely make out the shapes of the buildings and houses on the beach. The dark patch between Mexico and California, and the outline of the stadium lets me know I’m still pretty far south of the border, and I should go even farther out to sea if I’m to cross the border undetected.

If I go one mile out, no one should be able to see me. Two miles north should take me well into the US, then one more mile east back to land. That makes four miles of paddling. I should be able to do that if I take my time.

Hey, what was that?  It felt like I hit something with the paddle. I don’t see any tree stumps or logs or anything down there. Maybe there is one but I just don’t see it. Whatever it was, it seems to be gone now. I’ve heard on the news that boats are always hitting stuff that’s partially submerged out here; it could have been anything.

The sun is pretty bright and I don’t have any sunscreen. I pull up the collar of my transparent white shirt up over my neck. Does that mean I’m as good as naked right now and I’m going to—there it is again. That felt weird. I don’t think that was a log; it didn’t feel that solid . . . A chill rushes over me. My eyes sting for a second and my heart begins beating like crazy. I keep paddling. It’s probably not what I’m thinking.

What is the first thing I’m going to do when I get home? Probably take a nice, long shower, and go to bed. My nice, soft bed, with real pillows—there it is again! This time I didn’t hit it with my paddle. I felt a distinct thump beneath my knees. Shit! My heart races out of my chest. Shit-shit-shit!

There is something down there, and I don’t need two guesses to figure out what it is. It’s a frickin’ shark—I just know it! Great! I’m in an inflatable rubber raft and the shore is a long ways away. All the comfort I felt being so far from it vanishes in an instant.

Now I know what they mean when they say, it’s better to be on land and wishing you were on a boat, than to be on a boat and wishing you were on land. And that goes double for bright yellow inflatable rafts. I’m a frickin’ man-sandwich in a plastic yellow wrapper.

What should I do? Should I just sit here and pretend to be a log or something? Maybe it won’t see me if I don’t move. “Aaaah.” Another bump. That time I screamed. It heard me for sure.

I start paddling delicately back to shore, hoping not to alert the shark. Yeah, I think I’ll just stay in Mexico for the rest of my life. This place kinda grows on ya, actually.

I slowly begin to pick up speed, now that I’m cooperating with the current. A dorsal fin pops up about thirty yards away.

A fin? Really? They do that?

I remember hearing that sharks are big babies, and if you hit them on the nose, they’ll go away. It sounded good on the TV show, but I was on land at the time and it was purely theoretical then.

The fin is coming straight for me. Time to make a decision. I stop paddling and nausea fills my stomach. Yeah, maybe if I chum some barf over the side, that’ll discourage it. If that yellow thing tastes like this, I don’t want any . . .  Here it comes. Okay, shit, shit, shit, “SHIT!” Smack! Holy shit! I hit it. I can’t believe it—Oh no! What’s it going to do now? Did I piss it off? I can’t believe it. What have I done? I hit a fricking shark with a stupid plastic paddle. How dumb is that? I gotta get outa here.

Paddling like a madman, I decide to dispense with the stealth mode; the shark definitely knows I’m here.

Shit, the raft is losing air.  Fricking son-of-a-bitch, fricking mother, shit, shit, shit!

I feel the St. Christoper’s medal bang against my chest.

“Holy Mother of God, Jesus, please help me! Holy God! Jesus . . .”  I paddle frantically towards shore;

Oh no! The walls of the raft are flattening out. I see the shark’s fin gliding away. I focus on paddling and keeping the shark in my peripheral vision. I don’t want another surprise visit. It makes sharp turns like it’s lost or it’s swimming around walls.

Water is now spilling into the raft from the sides. I reach down to pop out the air-nipple. Oh no! The shark is gone. Shit! I mean, Jesus, um, thanks—I think.

I paddle and blow, paddle and blow. I don’t even try to figure out how to do both at the same time, I just do it.  Some water comes in my nose as I breathe. I cough which is not helping me blow up the raft. I bend my head around with the nipple still in my mouth, to see if I can see the shark again. It’s gone. I’m breathing in, paddling, blowing out, breathing in, paddling, blowing out.

The fin appears again—dead ahead, coming straight at me. “Holy mother of shit!” My face is inches from the ocean. Bumping heads with a shark would not be a good thing. I don’t want the last thing I see to be a shark’s tonsils, so I sit up on my knees, which forces the bottom of the raft down a bit, pushing my legs underwater, but keeping a ring of air and rubber around me. As the shark approaches, I reach the oar back over my head, and angle the blade like a knife to slice through the water. If I’m gonna go, I’m gonna take a few teeth with me. “Here you go you son of a—“

I hit it with all my strength, and time slows way down. I notice that the distance between the dorsal fin and his tail fin is longer than I am tall; about six feet, maybe more. This shark is massive. I come to this realization at the exact moment my paddle connects with the shark’s tough outer skin. The plastic handle cracks, then splinters, then shatters into pieces. The shark’s tail reflexes and splashes tons of water in every direction. I close my eyes and wish I was just dreaming. Then he’s gone.

Time resumes its normal pace. Oh, my God! I hit that shark so hard, all I’m left with is half a paddle, not to mention a leaky raft and a pissed off whale-shark. I am so screwed.

Holy Mother of God, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Moses, the Apostles, who else? St. John, and anybody in Bible-land I left out; can you hear me? I could really use some help right now.

This broken paddle is useless. I chuck it into the water. I don’t want any sharp edges around the raft. Oh, shit! There goes my weapon. What will I do when the shark comes back? Arm wrestle with it? Damn it! Now I’m no longer a . . . fierce . . . yellow . . . animal of some kind. I’m more like a happy meal. After he eats me he can play with the raft.

I lie down, stick the air nipple into my mouth, and swim as fast as I can towards shore. I try to move my head around, but I can’t. It‘s probably better this way. I would just freak out seeing that fin coming at me again. I’m now transformed into one big, swimming and blowing machine.

The first line of breakers are just ahead, about twenty yards. I can’t believe I’m so happy to see them. I hope I can lose the shark in the foam and get catapulted to the shore like the other times. I just have to make it to the breakers.  Maybe I can lose the shark in the white water, like a plane getting lost in a cloud. But what if the wave turns me over again, and I’m thrown out of the raft? I’ll be shark bait.  I can’t stand this!

I can’t believe my life may soon be over. I remember having a good childhood. School was okay, and I had some friends that were fun to do things with, until I had to get a job and start helping Mom with the food and stuff.

Mom took great care of me. She did the best she could, and if Dad had made it back, we would have had a great family. I wonder if this is how he met his end, too? Trying to swim back?

Mom. I’m sorry, Mom. I hope you won’t hate me for leaving you without a trace.

It seems like it’s taking me a lot longer to get back to shore than it did to get out here. My arms are burning with exhaustion, but I can’t stop now. Why is it that when I want a wave, it won’t take me, but when I don’t want one, I can’t get around them?

The raft heaves up and a warm sensation spreads outward in my pants. I hold on tight with my arms as I’m lifted up, and then back down again, as the wave passes without me. Damn! I mean, great it wasn’t the shark, but damn I missed the wave.

I will never again watch those Shark Week specials. I get a great mental picture of the episode where a shark comes halfway up the shoreline to get a seal, or the one where they toss a seal six feet into the air like they’re playing with their food. Oh, wait, I think those were killer whales.

I stop blowing, and look behind me, hoping not to see that huge shark again. Nothing. He’s probably right underneath me. Another wave is coming. If I paddle hard, it could take me all the way to shore. My arms and shoulders and chest and neck burn from the effort, as I strain one last time to get me back to dry land, while also bracing for a huge mouth to come and steal me away from my mom, my job, my new family. Nobody will ever know how I went missing. They’ll think men disappearing on them runs in the family.

I dip my hands into the water for only a fraction of a second each time, not wanting to dangle any shark treats in the water. The next wave picks my legs up and I paddle even harder to surf the wave in.

I paddle about twenty or thirty times before the raft and I get launched forward, and we ride on a bubbly, bumpy, scarier-than-shit wave in. Any moment, this ride could come to an end, and those bubbles could be from the shark as it comes to get me. It could be just below me, messing with me, letting me think I’ve made it safe, and right when I get to the shore, it’ll reach out of the wave, grab me, and jerk me back into the water, or toss me in the air like a doomed seal.

Why do I keep thinking these things?

I’m surfing. I’m jetting quickly to the shore. I just might make it. I can almost feel the sand beneath me as I stay in the raft well after I could get out and stand up.  When I feel the bottom of the raft skid across the sand below, I roll out. I sense the shark is waiting for this exact moment to pull me back and play with me a bit longer, and I shiver violently. I roll and do a kneeling kind of cartwheel, then I jump up and get as much air as I possibly can and land on the hard sand in front of me. What if I’m not far enough away from the water? Without stopping, I roll uphill. I roll, and roll, until I’m not only completely out of the water, I’m completely out of the hard, wet sand as well. Rolling and rolling until I’m covered in hot, gritty, dry sand, high above the water’s reach. My heart is pounding through my chest. I want to scream-cry-shout. All I can manage is a painful grunt as I collapse, covered in a gritty warm blanket.

After catching my breath a bit, I look at the water to see if that pussy of a shark is swimming around, waiting for someone a little easier to catch to float by in a leaky raft.

Taking in long, slow gulps of air, I try to get my heartbeat back to normal. My chest is thumping like a jackhammer and my arms shake uncontrollably. I think I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.

“Get a grip Frank, it’s over,” I tell myself.

I look to see where the raft is going. It’s bobbing on the remnants of a wave, about fifty yards away. I don’t care. I never want to see another plastic yellow raft again as long as I live . . . as long as I live. Man, it feels good to say that. I look down at my St. Christopher’s medal. I wonder if things would have worked out okay if I wasn’t wearing this?

One of the kids playing in the sand sees the raft, and runs over to it. The others quickly follow. They are all smiles. I’m happy to give it to them. Besides, should the real owners come looking for it, all I have to do is point to them and I’m off the hook. Come to think of it, I’ll bet that’s why it was left on the beach in the first place. Maybe there were people watching through the window, waiting to see the show. Maybe this was just a giant mouse-trap; I grabbed the big yellow cheese and got what was coming to me.

I lie still, relishing the feeling of the sun baking me dry and cooking the chill out of me. I love the feel of solid earth, sturdy and unmoving beneath me.

Man, this border is tough to cross. I thought It would be easy, considering the numbers of illegals living in the US. Some of them even bring their wives and children with them. Kids! How the heck to they do it?

I’m feeling extremely inadequate right now. If it weren’t for the fact that I just beat the crap out of Jaws . . . I did! I smacked him right in the kisser—twice! Oh-my-God! How many people do I know can say that? “Ha Ha! I am the man!” A young couple frown and walk quickly past me. I look at myself, caked in dry sand from head to toe, lying on the beach and bragging how great I am.

I’ve stopped shaking, for the most part. I get up and realize I don’t have my dad’s boots. Down the beach toward the kids there is something lying on the beach; a couple of small dark spots. The kids must have tossed the boots when they commandeered the raft. I’m just glad I didn’t lose them. I guess I could have shoved one in the shark’s mouth, if it tried to eat me, but, since they’re made of leather, the shark probably would’ve thought that it was just a chewy appetizer.

I shake most of the sticky sand-frosting off of me, then walk down the beach to pick up my boots. When I get there, the kids stare silently at me, mouths open. I half-heartedly smile, pick up my boots, turn and walk away. Soon the childish laughter resumes behind me. I turn to warn them of the shark nearby, but they’re in pretty shallow water, and no longer interested in me.

Where to now? I don’t have any friends or relatives in Tijuana. I can’t get home. The only person I know is Cheech, from El Burrito Crazy, and he told me how easy this was going to be.

Since I’m still wet, and covered, head to toe, in wet, glittery sand, every inch of me is grinding and squeaking as I slowly make my way up the beach.

I look at the water . . . I look at my clothes . . . I look at the water again . . . How long should I wait after hitting a shark in the head with a paddle, before it’s safe to go back in the water?

Keeping my eyes on the surface of the water, I slowly go back to where the water skims the beach. Surely he couldn’t get me here. I take a few more steps toward the water and wait for the next wave to rush over my feet, ready to run at any moment. The wave recedes. I take a few more steps toward the water, and the water rushes up to my ankles. Surely I would see the shark way before it came for me here.

After testing the water for sharks, I wait for a wave to break, and for the water to rush up to me again. I see there is no danger, so I fall to the ground, roll a couple of times in the water, leap up, and run back to dry sand . . . God! That was scary. Some of the sand washed off, but I probably need to do this a few more times.

When I’m finished, I feel a bit cleaner, but there isn’t any way I can get all the sand out of my underwear, waist, collar and armpits—not in public anyway. Going into the water deep enough to rinse myself off completely is out of the question but I also can’t exactly walk through town dripping wet. I decide to take a nice long walk along the beach, my boots in one hand and my socks in another. I look like I’ve been swimming and lots of people swim at the beach . . . but I didn’t bring a swimsuit. This’ll also give me some time to come up with a plan for what to do next. There’s got to be a way for an American citizen to get back into the country. I mean—it’s legal for Christ’s sake.

 

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Mike J Quinn About Mike J Quinn
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